Saudi Arabia — Recalibrating Its Relationship With the United States in a Dynamic World

The great powers always need strong allies to maintain their international standing and exert influence in regional environments that support their cross-border interests. Recognizing this, the United States, with its aspirations for global leadership,  understands the importance of Saudi Arabia in enhancing its role in the Middle East and its status on the global stage as the world’s sole superpower. This understanding has led to the establishment of a firm and deep-rooted alliance with Riyadh. This strategic alliance, which has spanned decades, has yielded mutual benefits for both parties and reinforced the United States’  global position.

However, the priorities of the United States have shifted, influenced by domestic partisan conflicts and strategic choices at the international level. This shift is evident in the changing  US attitude toward Saudi Arabia. Under the pressure of changes in the global power hierarchy,  the United States has reevaluated its strategy, international deployment, and strategic partnerships. This reassessment includes reconsidering its relationship with Saudi Arabia and attempting to reduce its security commitments in the Middle East, assigning more responsibility to regional  countries. This reassessment reflects a broader change  in the importance of the Middle East in US strategic calculations. The evolving geopolitical landscape has necessitated a reevaluation of the region’s strategic significance to the United States. 

The shift in the US-Saudi relationship is mutual; Saudi Arabia is no longer content with an unequal relationship that does not provide reciprocal benefits. The kingdom has expressed discomfort with  the United States’ regional plans and redeployment strategies, which  overlook Saudi interests and the threats it faces. Additionally, Riyadh is dissatisfied with the relationship being influenced by US partisan conflicts and policy fluctuations driven by electoral cycles. These cycles sometimes see Republicans supporting security cooperation with Riyadh, while Democrats may apply pressure, compelling Saudi Arabia to accept Washington’s policies without reservation.

In light of the US neglect of Saudi Arabia’s interests, a new reality has emerged, widening the gap between the two nations. This new reality  has necessitated Saudi Arabia’s hedging against the United States’  fluctuating policies. However, every cloud has a silver lining.  The United States’ approach has inadvertently strengthened Riyadh’s independence, prompting it to chart its own policies free from external influences. As a result, Riyadh has become a regional and global hub for diplomatic and peace initiatives. This strategy has elevated Saudi Arabia to a prominent regional position, making it an indispensable pillar of regional stability and a key partner in global development and trade growth.

Undoubtedly, when  the United States underestimated the importance of its relations with Saudi Arabia, international forces opposed to it seized the opportunity to strengthen their ties with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has built various partnerships based on mutual gains for all parties, effectively absorbing regional tensions and reinforcing its leadership position. The United States  realized the extent of its miscalculation regarding Saudi Arabia’s influence in Middle Eastern and global affairs.   However,  the current US administration has been  slow to grasp the new Saudi policy and the shifts in its external positions and directions. It has failed to understand that Riyadh’s minimum response would be to seek alternatives and avoid tying the country’s future to any single external power. Within less than a decade, Riyadh has redefined its foreign policies and partnerships, steering the region toward significant changes. This shift has helped in moving the region away from  an era of chaos as well as thwarting  plans to entangling it  in proxy wars and the proliferation of terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia’s development model has become a benchmark, inspiring many countries to strive to improve their domestic situations.

Indeed, Riyadh is no longer facing existential challenges or urgent crises in the region. Instead, it has gained the capability to independently shape its policies and serve its interests. The burden of dealing with regional challenges has now shifted to the United States, which finds itself grappling with the consequences of its misreading of regional developments and its relationship with Saudi Arabia. This miscalculation has forced the  United States to confront numerous adversaries and opponents at a high cost. It is noteworthy that Riyadh had previously warned  the United States about the unfolding situation, but  it ignored these warnings, withdrawing its support and leaving its ally to navigate the complexities alone. Now, the United States finds itself re-engaging in the region, but this time without the strong regional ally it once had.

 The United States is now trying to rectify its strategic missteps regarding Saudi Arabia, seeking to redefine its relationship with the kingdom. However, it appears that the United States has yet to fully grasp the significant transformations occurring in Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh’s issue with  the United States was once primarily security-related, this concern has diminished in urgency for Riyadh. In the long term, Saudi Arabia is developing substantial capabilities within its ambitious defense plans. Regarding Iran, Riyadh has effectively addressed this challenge independently, employing both risk management and deterrence, whether through confrontation or reconciliation. If the problem was the need for a strong international ally, Saudi Arabia no longer desires to be entangled in competing international alliances that could compromise its balanced and neutral stance. The kingdom’s current strategy reflects its desire for autonomy and balanced diplomacy, ensuring it maintains its pivotal role in regional stability without being constrained by the agendas of external powers.

The recalibration of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a complex issue due to the US approach, which seems to assume a return to the previous dynamics of their relationship.  The United States appears to be attempting to revert to an era where it dictated the regional order, ignoring the significant changes that have taken place. However,  Saudi Arabia has emerged as a pivotal player in a newly shaped world, forging critical relationships with international partners that it cannot simply abandon to accommodate the United States’  wishes. Saudi Arabia has embarked on a regional project that cannot be dismantled merely to align with  the United States’ vision for the Middle East or its desire to uphold its hegemonic leadership.  Furthermore, the kingdom has an internal development project and legitimacy within the Arab and Islamic worlds that it cannot afford to compromise. This is particularly pertinent in light of  the United States’ expectations that Saudi Arabia might make concessions, such as yielding new gains to Israel in the region or supporting moves that might enhance President Joe Biden’s electoral prospects.

The United States has recognized the validity of Saudi Arabia’s approaches, acknowledging that the kingdom is not the party hindering peace initiatives in the region.  Riyadh’s concerns about the extreme instability in the region have proven to be logical. In a testimony to Congress on May 21, 2024, reported by Al-Monitor, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed skepticism about Israel’s willingness to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state and maintain calm in Gaza as prerequisites for normalization with Saudi Arabia. However, he highlighted Saudi Arabia’s positive role in achieving peace, noting, “The Saudis have been very clear: That would require calm in Gaza, and it will require a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.” Al-Monitor concluded, quoting David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, “The Saudi role would be crucial to any final resolution of the Gaza conflict.”

To conclude, it can be said that Saudi Arabia appreciates the  US position, its international role, and  leadership. The kingdom understands the ongoing changes in global interactions and the balance of  power equation. It also recognizes its own emergence as an economic, political and logistical power with a global outlook.  Therefore, the United States should not view Riyadh merely as a tool to implement US regional policies or as a lever to influence domestic US politics. Instead, it should see Saudi Arabia as a regional state navigating a critical phase of leadership, with an ambitious internal project and a regional and international role driven by the desire to establish peace, stability and the smooth flow of interests away from polarization and proxy wars.  The United States should not expect Riyadh to yield gains at the expense of its position, acquired role, and ambitious aspirations. Without this understanding, the relationship will not bear fruit, and the alliance will not be restored. This situation requires a serious and nuanced  US approach that acknowledges the fundamental shifts in  the kingdom’s position and aspirations.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Director of the Military and Security Studies Unit at Rasanah